Nakhichevan, a land locked exclave of Azerbaijan, is barely known in Western media today. However, her history is a symbolic narrative of Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict which has engulfed the region for the past century. In 1828, at the conclusion of the Russo-Turkish War, Nakhichevan entered the Russian Empire through the Treaty of Turkamanchai from Persia (Swietochowski, 6). The rest of Armenia had been lost to Russia earlier; thus, Nakhichevan has a distinct and separate path form Armenia stemming from the time difference in occupation. Despite the differences in historical narrative, it is considered by most Armenians to be a part of Armenia.
Before 1828 the area was occupied by many groups including the Persian Safavids, the Turkish Ottomans, and Mongolians who provided the opportunity for many to convert to Christianity through their policy of tolerance. Two distinct groups emerged in Nakhichevan the Persian Christian Armenians and the Turkish Muslim Azerbaijanis. At various times both groups have asserted that they are the rightful rulers of Nakhichevan and both have erased the other from the historical narrative of the area.
Post-occupation, the Nakhichevan khanate remained intact and the Tsar used the borders for administrative purposes (Swietochowski, 10). “For most of the period up to the Russian Revolution, the divisions did not mean much. The tsar’s empire-builders ran roughshod over national interests in Transcaucasia… what Armenians could not foresee, of course, was that the rather arbitrary lines on the map would serve as the basis for national homelands in the twentieth century” (Malkasian, 21). Nakhichevan was loosely controlled and there are no English sources that speak of any major upheaval until 1905; thus, for historical purposes, the history of Armenia can be used to understand this time period. More significantly though, the lack of distinction across borders created, in part, the current conflict today concerning the rightful ownership of the region. In 1905 Muslim-Armenian violence occurred over the murder of a Muslim in Baku, by May the violence spread to Nakhichevan (Swietochowski, 41). The Armenians were mostly seen as victims in Nakhichevan (Swietochowski, 42). The minor upheaval was soon overshadowed by the First World War and the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1918.
At the conclusion of the First World War, the Ottomans left the area and the British forces replaced them. Transcaucasia budded with nationalism as the many peoples established their own countries. The Republic of Armenia and the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan both desired Nakhichevan, but it was Armenia that claimed it and Nakhichevan was an Armenian territory until 1920 (De Waal, 68). The British supported this initially as it denied the Azerbaijanis a link to Turkey (Malkasian, 22). However after the many negotiations at the conclusion of WWI, Armenia again lost Nakhichevan to Azerbaijan when Turkish aggression negated the Treaty of Serves and was replaced by the Treaty of Alexandropol. When Soviet forces entered the region in the 1920s, Nakhichevan was cemented as Azerbaijani territory. Initially the Soviets declared Nakhichevan as part of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, but anti-Soviet Revolts by the Azerbaijanis reversed this decision within weeks and Nakhichevan had changed hands again. In 1924 the Nakhichevan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was officially created as an exclave of Azerbaijan. This did not reflect Soviet favor of Azerbaijan; rather, it reflected their international conflicts at the time. Turkey was newly formed from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire and supported the Azerbaijanis. The strip of Armenia separating Nakhichevan and Azerbaijan served to dissuade the Kemal of Turkey from driving north to the Caspian Sea (Malkasian, 24). The Armenians viewed the boundaries as Soviets bending to the will of the Turks, which was true— Stalin who had been a major player in this decision making process became a villain in their eyes, even before he replaced Lenin.
Soviet Transcaucasia had its independence recognized by Stalin, but was violated immediately. The independent institutions of the three Caucus republics were crushed along with any dissidents (De Waal, 79). Collectivization began and soon terror reached Transcaucasia in the 1930s, when Stalin placed Lavrenti Beria over the region. World War one left the region largely untouched. “After the death of Stalin, the three republics were allowed to undergo a kind of national revival” (De Waal, 89). Nakhichevan had no explicit role during this period, but the revival of nationalism would soon again place her in conflict.
Beginning through the avenue of perestroika Armenians and Azerbajanis voiced their discontent with one another, and the Armenians began to demand the return of their land which they had lost. Of course, the Azerbaijanis considered the exact same land theirs as well. Nakhichevan was used as justification for return of Mountainous Karabagh, another disputed region. “The worst case scenario for Karabagh Armenians was all too apparent in the fate of Nakhichevan. In 1917, Armenians made up almost 40 percent of the area’s population…By 1979, only 3,400 Armenians were left—1.4 percent of the total population” (Malkasain, 179). Because of laws preventing Armenians from returning to Nakhichevan and Azerbaijani control, the population fell as many Armenians gathered to Armenia over the years, and once the USSR fell many immigrated to America. Thus Armenians view the ‘de-Armenization’ of Nakhichevan as ‘white genocide’ (Malkasian, 56). The 1990s were an unstable time in the Caucuses as a war raged for control of Nakhichevan and Karabagh, both fertile regions that Armenia borders and Azerbaijanis control. At one point, Nakhichevan was completely cut off from Azerbaijan due to a rail blockade and an airlift proceeded to fulfill the needs of the country. Similar to the fall of tsarist Russia tensions flared right as the region was given some sort of autonomy. Perhaps, the violence reflected the brutalities experienced under the empire’s rule.
The Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict created thousands of refugees and resulted in no changes for Nakhichevan’s borders. The region is still an autonomous republic of Azerbaijan, with almost no Armenian inhabitants as most have left the region. Largely forgotten in western press, Nakhichevan symbolizes the complexities of international relations in the Caucuses.
- Mark Malkasian, “Gha-ra-bagh!” The emergence of the National Democratic Movement in Armenia (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1996).
- Thomas De Waal, The Caucasus: An Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
- Tabeusz Swietochowski, Russian Azerbaijan 1905-1920: The Shaping of Natinoal Identity in a Muslim Community (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).
- Tabeusz Swietochowski, Russia and Azerbaijan: A borderland in Transision (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995)
- Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. “Naxçıvan,” accessed March 30, 2012, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/402081/Naxcivan.